To Death’s Door And Back: One Woman’s Kettlebell Epiphany, Part 1

I’ve talked about her before.

She’s one of my favorite clients.

I first met her and her husband at The Summit of Strength in 2011. They celebrated their anniversary by attending. Right then and there I knew they were both special people.

She has such a beautiful, warm smile and a joy for life. And she’s strong. She told me her story while we were at the Summit and I knew why.

Karen Rossler has overcome some major obstacles and the her trusty kettlebell has been instrumental in the process.

So grab a cup a Joe, sit down, and take the next 5-10 minutes and get ready to be inspired. Cause if you’re feeling a little “blah” – Karen’s triumphant story will pick you up.

Geoff: Give us a little bit about your background – who you are, what you do for work, what you enjoy doing… that sort of thing.

Karen: I’ve been married for about 60% of my life.
Orthodox Christian
I’m an SFG, CK-FMS, ISSA-CFT, BA in Honors English Literature.
Co-owner of Sisu Strength with my husband, Michael
15 year stage three thyroid cancer thriver Love learning, reading, being with my family, teaching people how to move well and how to be strong.

GN: What first got you into exercise / working out?

KR: I was an active, athletic kid. I organized the neighborhood kids to play various games, climb trees, swing on ropes. Loved to race, climb trees, roller skate, run, pogo stick, play tether ball, 4 square, everything and anything was fair game for me. I had the broken bones, cuts and scrapes to prove it. My poor mom . . . .

In middle school, I signed up for gymnastics lessons. I loved it. When I got to high school, I went out for the gymnastics team. I had a great coach.

The first thing our coach did was introduce us to the weight room. We were the first girls’ team to venture into that territory. One whiff inside explained why. As soon as some girls walked in, they did a U turn to get the heck out of there. Coach hollered, “Get back in there! Get in there! NOW!” Then she locked the door. And we lifted. I loved it. Lifting, not the smell. I was always sure of myself, but I really started to feel strong. More confident at meets. My scores went way up and I started winning events and a couple of all-arounds. My sophomore year, I placed 4th at state on two events – without actually training for it. I started thinking about what I could do if I really planned ahead. And then the Navy moved my family to Connecticut. My new coach informed me I was too tall and too fat (I was 5’7” and about 115#). That was the beginning of decades of fighting my body. The confident, strong girl I had become started to fade away. “Skinny” was my new goal. Every workout, every meal skipped, everything was focused on “skinny”.

I ended up starving myself. The least I ate in a day would be an apple and maybe a granola bar. At most, I would have the apple, granola bar and maybe a very, very small dinner. Looking back, it’s a wonder I was able to function, much less make it through grueling practices five days per week. With every meal skipped, it became easier to skip the next one. I got really good at lying to my mom about eating. A pattern of eating dinner after practice – and, therefore, alone – made it super easy to tell my mom I had eaten what she had saved for me. At first, I was proud of myself for being able to conquer my body. I was winning the skinny game. When I got so famished that I had to eat, I felt guilty, ashamed, weak, and fat. I felt like such a failure. All because I needed to eat.

I wasn’t doing so well in meets – never placed, my scores were never as high as they had been when I was “fat”. Of course, my 17 year old brain couldn’t see the correlation between eating well and performing well. I had convinced myself that it was because I was fat. Still fat. Still a failure. So of course, that meant eating even less. Just an apple, no granola bar. Dinner a couple of nights a week at most. Talking about it now, I feel so sad for that girl I was then. And really ticked off at that idiot coach.

After I graduated, I went off to college and started to eat again. I gained about 10 pounds – which put me back in the almost healthy range – but I panicked because I thought I was fat. Or fatter. I was really confused, scared and angry. I had come to believe that “skinny” equaled “successful, smart, happy, admirable”. The thought of eating around others terrified me. I was so afraid of losing control – and also, of having them learn my secret. See, if they figured out that I wasn’t “naturally skinny”, they would realize that I was a fraud. That I was a failure. Thinking about what I wasn’t going to eat was just exhausting.

I met and married my husband, Michael, while in college. Being in a healthy, loving relationship enabled me to put “skinny” behind. I started using The FIRM workouts – “heavy” dumbbells + cardio. I remembered how much I loved lifting weights and just took off. I felt great, and I looked pretty good, too. Then we moved to DC. We had an hour commute each way, each day, which left precious little time for 1 hour workouts 5 days per week. My nutrition started to slide, and the weight started to creep on. My confidence started to slide, stress started to build, more fat came on. Lather, rinse, repeat.

When we moved into the city, I had more time to work out, so I went back to The FIRM. I also walked about 4 miles per day. The weight came off, again. Things were going pretty well for a few years. Then slowly, I started to gain weight. I also became incredibly tired. Then I lost a lot of weight in a month. I didn’t weigh myself at the time, but I went down 3 sizes. I was so exhausted, I couldn’t get out of bed to workout. I was terrified of gaining weight – even though I was rail-thin — so I thought I’d better keep doing something. I switched to yoga, and kept on walking. Slowly but surely, I had to stop everything. I was barely able to make it through a workday, I was so exhausted. I kept thinking it was something simple, like nutrition or finding the “perfect” workout. Until I was diagnosed with cancer. Talk about an “a-ha” moment.

I was told I’d be “lucky” to live 2 years, that I should prepare myself and my family and friends for the worst. I was 34 years old. All I could think of was all the things I’d never be able to do: I wouldn’t grow old with my husband, wouldn’t have kids, would never go to Europe. It was awful.

GN: Wow. I’m stunned. I’m sure there are a lot of female readers who can empathize with what you went through. I appreciate you opening up and sharing that. I’m sure they will too. I think it’ll also give us guys – especially us married ones – some of the internal pressures women – and our wives struggle with. So, how about something positive – what were some of your early successes?

KR: Convincing my sister and one of her friends to lie down on the street behind the Evil Kneivel ramp I made so I could jump over them on my bike was pretty great. Wait, is my mom going to read this?

Lettering in gymnastics at both my high schools was great. I’m still really proud of that.

GN: Ha! I’m guessing your sister survived.  What were some of your disappointments? Failures?

KR: I made working out far more complicated than it needed to be. I kept thinking there was a perfect way to do it, a perfect combination of exercises for a perfect amount of time, for a perfect amount of days per week. But the biggest mistake I made was approaching exercise with fear first. I was terrified of being overweight. I still had that awful coach in my head. No matter how slim, trim, toned, or buff I got, I still saw “FAT” in the mirror.

GN: That’s a GREAT insight here. Why did you still see “FAT” in the mirror? And HOW did you overcome that? Did that moment ever come? And if it has, was it the KBs that did it for you?

KR: I still saw “FAT” in the mirror because I hadn’t fully trusted myself yet. I was chasing after the perfect way to conquer my body instead of remembering what it was like to really enjoy moving well and being strong. I was also comparing myself to fitness models or the gym bunny chicks in the exercise videos I was using. Or I’d look at lanky runners and then compare my sprinter-esque thighs and think “fat fat fat fat fat”.

And then, on June 20, 1997, I was diagnosed with stage three thyroid cancer. I had lost a lot of weight the previous year, but thought I had finally broken through a plateau. Actually, I was at a healthy weight and then lost enough weight to have gone down 3 dress sizes in about a month. Not healthy! I was told I’d be “lucky” to live 2 years – the cancer was super aggressive and had spread to my lymph nodes. I finally figured out that it was time to stop fighting my body and start learning to love it again. Instead of seeing “FAT” in the mirror, I started seeing “SICK and SAD”. I had some very strange reactions from people when I told them I had cancer. The worst by far was being treated like an invalid invalid (interesting both of those words are spelled the same, isn’t it?). Getting past that new self-identity was tougher than “FAT”, but very similar. Both were based in fear, self-loathing and fighting my body. At the beginning of my recovery, small victories started to accumulate – being able to raise my right arm more than 45 degrees, being able to dress myself, brush my hair, walk up a flight of stairs, go back to work. The biggest change in how I looked at myself is when I turned back to God. The first thing I did after I found out I had cancer was get on my knees and pray. I haven’t stopped praying since. The minute I remembered that God had created me, had given me a wonderfully made body to experience life in – that was the minute I stopped being fat, useless, worthless, an invalid invalid, inadequate, stupid, blah blah blah. God led me through those very dark days into a beautiful, wonderful, love-filled life. I had gotten lost over the years, but He led me where I needed to be. And I truly believe God led me to kettlebells. Might sound corny, but kettlebells truly changed my life.

GN: No, it doesn’t sound corny at all. It sounds like a true epiphany – a moment of clarity in a dark night in your life. And one that most women, most people never have, but are always chasing. I think it’s really cool, actually. That brings us to the next question then: How did you first hear about kettlebells?

KR: In 2007, I had finally had enough of being overweight. I had spent the 10 years since cancer fighting my weight, fighting my body. My immune system was shot. But I was determined to make what time I had left on this earth count, and I knew being healthy was the key to that. I dug out those FIRM videos once again and created a monthly program. I got serious about what I was eating – and what I should be eating. I promised myself that no matter what happened, I was going to stick with it. If I got sick, I wouldn’t wallow in Krispy Kreme donuts.

It worked for a couple of years, but I got bored. So very bored of perky, svelte babes doing boring workouts with boring dumbbells. I tried creating my own workouts. Still boring. I had lost a decent amount of weight, but knew I could do better.

I saw a notice on Facebook in April 2010 about a free nutrition and kettlebell program via the internet. It was run by an RKC. I had no idea what RKC meant, but I checked out the program. I had seen an infomercial for a kettlebell program, but the sizes of the weights looked ridiculously small. So, I wasn’t sold immediately on this new program. I ordered a 4kg kettlebell and figured I’d give it a try.

GN: What was your initial attraction to them – what was it that motivated you try them out – to stop doing what you were doing and give them a shot?

KR: I was really intrigued with the idea of swinging a weight. I liked that they were different. There was something appealing about a hunk of iron shaped like a cannonball. Plus, I was just desperate to finally, finally get the rest of the weight off. I thought doing something so different would “break the plateau”. I didn’t really think about what I’d do if/when that happened, or what I’d do if it didn’t happen. I just threw myself in to the workouts and expected the best.

We’ll pick up tomorrow with Part 2, which includes Karen’s initial successes using kettlebells, her failures and disappointments, and how she overcame them, and why in a world of exercise ADD she’s still able to stay focused and keep on making progress with her kettlebell workouts.

3 comments… add one
  • Steve Freides Mar 14, 2013 @ 10:34

    Fantastic story – can’t wait to read part II. Strength of character and strength of body make a great pair. Karen clearly has both.


    • GEOFFN Mar 14, 2013 @ 22:14

      Thanks, Steve. Karen is indeed strong. Great example to us all.

  • Jenny Smuland Mar 15, 2013 @ 8:21

    Thank you so much for sharing Karen’s story! I’m lucky enough to be one of her students and am thrilled that the rest of the KB community gets to appreciate her as much as her Sisu students do.

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